Fiji 2011: Critical Engagement and Future Scenarios (Part II) - Akuila Yabaki
Speech given by the Rev Akuila Yabaki Chief Executive Officer, Citizens' Consitutional Forum, in February 2011 during his New Zealand tour. I consider it the most important paper to be written on Fiji this year.
Part II. Critical Engagement (continued) and Future Scenarios
Part I was published last Saturday.
The April 9, 2009 Court Case was a significant event in the impact it had on the CCFs engagement with government. Without any constitutional basis to support the actions of the Bainimarama government meant that CCF would have to disengage itself completely in its parallel work with the State and discontinue its involvement with the Charter and the Charter process.
That does not, however, diminish in any way the States commitment to the Charter which though much criticized, mainly by those who knew very little about its content, objectives and principles, was actually in our view, though a product of an illegal regime was in fact good and progressive in principle.
The document still remains a key roadmap for the State. Two areas which have seen significant progress include Pillar 2 A Common and National Identity and Building Social Cohesion. A national Identity for all citizens under the name Fijian, indigenous Fijians called iTaukei and the removal of all racial or ethnic labels from public institutions is a progressive step towards unity. Pillar 6 Making more land available for productive and social purposes has made some steps forward through the Land Use decree allowing for the establishment of a Land Use Unit, A land bank allowing for Landowners and prospective tenants an alternative to land lease arrangements apart from the NLTB. The land bank and the Committee for the Better utilization of Land (CBUL) is working hard towards identifying idle land for use. It is still too early to measure the impact and effectiveness of these changes.
Similarly the democratization of the lease distribution, equal share for each landowning unit is allowing for wider and even distribution of wealth and consistent with the key tenets of economic justice. Impacts and effectiveness is also an issue for study for the citizens to decide if it is indeed good or bad.
The Strategic Framework for Change team who are tasked to monitor the performance of the Charter principles implemented as the roadmap to the return to democratic elections scheduled for 2014 tends to focus on the performance of the implementors, line ministries and government departments and nearly almost ignores the recipients of change the citizens to have a better understanding of the effectiveness, relevance, and real performance of the Charter objectives.
Like it or not the Charter will without a doubt be the key document that will provide the framework for the way forward in terms of the discussion of key issues such as the electoral reform, constitution work, socio-economic reforms, land reforms, and quite likely the form of government Fiji may inherit.
The questions lies in whether or not we wish to engage in this process of change. To what degree do we want to engage? What real and effective contribution can we provide to this change? Will we be merely rubber stamping an unsustainable change by an illegal regime? Shall we isolate and alienate ourselves from the change and sabotage it at whatever cost? OR shall we engage and influence change in the right direction allowing for a better future for our citizens working in critical engagement with the regime? These are the critical choices we have to make.
Fiji is currently in a stagnant situation where people cannot predict if the country will move forward in the coming year. Will there be any progress made that will have some benefits for the population in terms of allowing them to have a greater say in the way decisions are being made and implemented? Some future scenarios for Fiji are explored below.
- Economic Situation
The economic situation in Fiji remains extremely unstable and vulnerable. On the positive, if indeed it is one, is an anticipated 2011 1.3% growth in GDP is still expected with 0.8% growth now anticipated for 2012; Foreign Reserves was maintained at $1,299.6 million at the end of January 2011; and noted growth trends in Tourism peaking at a record high of 600,000 plus visitors last year. Growth trends are anticipated for Timber, Remittances and Gold Exports this year. These positives are, however, outweighed out by government debt standing at 56% of GDP and up to 73% with contingent liabilities. Government debt includes external and domestic loans, the latter comprising 93%. Responding to IMF recommendation government raised VAT from 12 to 15% which will further punish the poor citizens who face low and stagnant wages, and whose spending power was adversely affected by devaluation and adjustment of import prices to the 20%. Increasing Consumer Price Indexes remain on the up with an expected year end average of 5%.
Government’s solution to date has been tightening of government spending via high indirect tax receipts, lower capital spending, and restraints on the public wage bill. At the Balance of Payments end, government has been looking at import substitution by stimulating domestic production targeting the agricultural area which has been hit by constricting sugar production with this years output expected to be one third of the previous year in tonnage of output.
As it is, with the suspension of Fiji from the Forum Secretariat, Fiji receives no benefits from the PACER and PACER Plus arrangements. The seemingly only bleak option for us now is to seek loans and add to our huge debt figures which could break our backs should we be hit with say a flurry of natural disasters, which would adversely affect growth in our key sectors of Agriculture and Tourism. If anything a return to democracy will re-open the doors via PACER to our traditional trading partners, EU funds to the sugar industry, and provide some reprieve allowing us to find our feet along with the mending global economy.
The Sugar industry still remains the poor performer with last season with the overall output falling by 13.9% due to general mill inefficiency. National Budget 2011 allocation to reviving the industry is to the amount of $120million with key reforms to be drawn from the Deloitte Report as undertaken through the Sugar Task Force. The Mill Upgrade Programme (MUP) has failed to address the ongoing issues of plant reliability, milling efficiency, better sugar quality, improved sugar extraction, energy efficiency and environmental controls.
In the meantime, these problems will manifest themselves in our daily lives as citizens of a struggling economy, reflected in high and intense poverty levels in the rural areas of between 40% according to Government figures or 33% according to Wadan Narsey et al.
Nevertheless, indirect indicators such as the need for a mid-way 2010 budget revision, a high number of decrees (72 to date) requiring subsequent amendments to fix oversights and errors, frequent calls for further review of price and tariff controls after implementation, and after failing to obtain a $1 billion stand-by arrangement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) imposed a Budget that saw reductions in Health and Education but increases in Military Spending, exorbitant allocation to revive the sugar industry and the ongoing debt facilitation – external and internal. Currently around 55% of total GDP. To top it off an increased VAT to hit citizens imposing an increase of 3% from 12% to 15%, while wages and salaries remain unchanged. Late last year based on a 2002 Joint Evaluation report an increase was permitted for only the Nurses and Police .
The President’s Political Dialogue Process was ready to get underway in April 2009 and all major political stakeholders had confirmed their participation. Since the 2009 abrogation, no concrete word has been received on when the process will continue. Last year, an advertisement was placed in the newspapers calling for Expressions of Interest to participate in a National Political Dialogue by the government in February 2010, and everyone was encouraged to register. But the February 2010 date passed by and no word was received from the government on when this dialogue would occur, even though unofficial word has been received that most stakeholders were willing to participate. At the “Engaging with the Pacific” meeting organized by the Fiji government in Natadola in July 2010, Bainimarama revealed to Pacific leaders that they are still looking for a facilitator for the dialogue.
As a way forward, the CCF therefore advocates for the international community to shift its focus from the date of elections to encouraging Fiji to reinitiate this critical political dialogue as a necessary first step. CCF believes that an independent and capable facilitator can be sourced from the South Pacific; and credible home grown solutions developed if enough momentum is established behind getting an inclusive and independently facilitated national leader’s dialogue back underway.
This remains a strong indication of a credible step towards democracy and will allow the key critical commitments towards the other key benchmarks such as the Constitutional Work, Electoral Reform, Non-Discrimination Laws and the Bill of Rights issues to be addressed and discussed.
A process for a new Constitution is expected to be instigated by the Government in 2012. Word has been received that the government is already preparing for the process and that the recommendations in the 2008 People’s Charter may form the basis for the new Constitution.
A new non-racist electoral system has been mooted; and electoral and parliamentary regulation laws are expected to be made separate from the new Constitution. The question that remains is how can we hold this and other governments accountable to any new constitution? If we do participate in the creation of a new Constitution, do we start from scratch or do we take relevant effective provisions from Fiji’s 1997 Constitution and build on that towards a new Constitution? If the new Constitution does not receive widespread acceptance, then there are further risks of future litigations or further Constitutional changes.
CCF as an organization, as will every Fijian, is faced with these questions as we contemplate how we will participate in the upcoming Constitution development process. CCF has engaged an overseas Constitutional Expert group to seek advice on how to proceed in this area. We hope that the progressive features of Fiji’s 1997 Constitution will be retained in the new one. There is an opportunity for Fiji citizens and stakeholders to engage and make a fresh beginning if the Constitution making process is genuine and consultative. We hope this process will provide a new beginning for Fiji.
The given timeline by Government for September 2012 Work on Constitution, its anticipated promulgation in September 2013, Elections in 2014 currently provides us with a significant challenge to have the State set into motion the processes required. While the Charter provides some direction, several political dialogues need to be reconvened to allow for discussion on key issues regarding the contents of the Constitution. The Bill of Rights, the Political Role of the Great Council of Chiefs, the form of government, electoral reforms, and other pertinent issues need to be addressed, the specific timelines for the work including the appointment of the team, the levels of consultation required, the format and approach, the drafting, and ratification of the document by the citizens.
Quite apart from that the need to perhaps consider a transitional administration such as government of national unity or interim government tasked to allow for the change to a constitutional and democratically elected government.
A body made up of the Citizenship, Civil Societies and experts on Constitutional development independent of the state should be appointed to lead the work on the constitution to give it credibility. It is important that the document is not viewed as a product of the current regime or else it will not be accepted by the people. The experience of 1997 and the Constitutional crisis in Nauru as closer and more recent events testifies to this failure.
These kinds of discussions will need to take place now leading up to the September 2012 dates and government needs to be fully committed to this as a necessary process.
Whilst the government has remained steadfast on an election date of 2014, which some international partners are now appearing to accept, it remains critical that Fiji not only remains committed to this date but immediately sets the processes in place for comprehensive electoral reforms. CCF is also of the view that an earlier return to elections is possible and should not be entirely discarded, however should not be the focus as key milestones first need to be achieved. Furthermore, if there were to be any further shifts or postponements in the 2014 date there would be a major loss of both local and international confidence.
- Power Vacuum & New Diplomatic Strongholds
Suspension of and arrested relations with the traditional partners New Zealand, Australia, the Commonwealth countries, United States, and European Union over the last 4 years has appeared to remain tentative as the Bainimarama government sought and strengthened relations with the Asian countries through its Look North Policy, and forged friendships with China, India, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Malaysia. Furthermore, these new found relations has led Fiji to join the Non-Aligned States and firmed up diplomatic ties with more than 80 states over the last 8 months through the Beijing Mission.
Singapore has assisted through the development of the Yellow Ribbon Programme, Land Reforms, Governance structures and basically as a role model of economic and political reforms. Sri Lanka have lended their judiciary to beef up ours, and China has provided strategic direction planning in agricultural diversifications, soft loans, military training, and bilateral aid and assistance and overall superpower support which is now causing the USA some discomfort. East Timor, Solomon Islands, PNG, Tonga, Samoa and Fiji all now have different levels of sustained relationships with the Peoples Republic of China. East Timor so far has had considerable support through several key infrastructural projects and most recently the gift of two naval vessels for maritime boarder surveillance between Indonesia, Australia and East Timor. Tonga has had some its key infrastructural projects supported by the Chinese government. Fiji government has had a considerable amount of support and is leading the charge for the Pacific countries to seriously look North. Fiji’s Public Sector Reforms and Policy Issues are also being influenced to a great degree by the Asian countries.
Fiji is important enough as a regional leader to sway alliances away from the traditional partners and this is a shift that the USA wants Australia and New Zealand to take seriously, and to react to correctly without accelerating this shift even further.
The current administration is applying a considerable amount of its resources exploring new partners and new relationships and is managing some gains in this area.
To conclude, I acknowledge that militarization that has taken place in Fiji. The abrogation of the Fiji constitution and imposition of PER and other non-challengeable decrees have placed the country under effective military rule. A vulnerable and weak economic situation coupled with a power vacuum in local leadership, as well as an fractured diplomatic relations with its key regional partners pose a worrying situation for Fiji.
However there have also been positive developments. The government continues to show a clear commitment to addressing long standing issues of racial discrimination, is tackling a number of required reforms in difficult and previously highly politicized areas such as land, and has in recent times shown an increasing willingness to engage in dialogue with civil society. It is therefore the view of CCF that these positive steps must be built upon and ways of constructive critical engagement found and strengthened.
Key areas of concern for CCF continue to be that there has been very little effort to engage with the people in the formulation of many decrees; PER continues to stifle conversation, dialogue and freedom of speech; and there has been very little movement in the processes that will lead to constitution making and to democratic elections.
As a way forward, CCF therefore proposes that efforts to bring Fiji back to sustainable democracy, both locally and internationally, be focused on constructively engaging, finding ways to build upon opportunities for dialogue, and specifically target the critical interim milestones of:
- the lifting of PER;
- the reinstatement of an inclusive and independently facilitated political dialogue;
- the promotion of dialogue and consensus as the means of Charter recommendation implementation;
- the bringing forward of the timeline for work on constitutional development; and
- immediate commencement of electoral reforms.
Finally it is important to note that under the current state of affairs The role of Civil Societies as change agents remain critical in:
- allowing citizens to view Good Governance Issues critically,
- to remain critically engaged with government in making our views heard on key policy issues, and ill prepared reforms
- To monitor Governments Commitment to Human Rights issues through the Universal Periodic Review and the documents which the state has ratified and signed off on
- To monitor governments overall performance and provide an alternative view to how it is performing to the international community
- To be the voice to pressure government to maintain its commitment to the return to a sustainable democracy
Right now we all still waiting for credible steps in the right direction.